Saturday, September 5, 2009

The traumatic experience

With some of the conversations I've been having (mostly online) regarding why I stopped believing in God, there is often this assumption that something happened that made me turn away. In other words, there was some sort of bad experience that soured me on Christianity. I always insist that this isn't true and that I turned away for purely rational, logic-based reasons. Still, I like to be honest in what I say, especially when I'm trying to present my case for something. As a result, I've been mulling over my reasons for turning away from belief.

Part of me resists even contemplating this, as the whole argument is somewhat annoying for a couple of reasons. For one thing, whether I've had some kind of bad experience with Christians is irrelevant to the point of whether I'm right or not. My decision could be purely based on emotions, yet I could still be right. Another thing is that I find that believers often approach from a sense of certainty. After all, there IS a God, so there has to be something to make me not believe, but it can't possibly be because I actually have a good reason and I'm right.

Anyway, I realize that my story, just like everybody's story, is subject to subjective editing. No doubt I'm focusing on certain events and leaving out others as much as I try not to do that. Still, I'm going to try and be completely honest with myself.

There's only one thing about my belief that raises up an emotional response in me. When I was little, I was constantly afraid of demons. Everything had the potential to be "demonized". My family had been in contact with the Jehovah's Witnesses, and according to them, everything from a pinata that my parents got in Cancun for me to a poster of Michael Jackson on my sister's wall was probably demonized. I even remember them coming in to my sister's room and examining the poster to determine whether it was or not as though they were some kind of antique expert who was determining its value.

I was told though that demons could not harm me. Oh, they would certainly try, but all I had to do was say the name of God, and I'd be okay. I suppose that this is their to make a little kid feel secure. After all, if you have the creator of all existence on your side, you're probably going to be okay. Unfortunately, this all seemed to have the opposite effect on me. Instead of feeling safe, I felt like I had to always be vigilant whenever I heard some noise at night or had some sort of troubling thought.

My mom gets defensive when I talk about this, because it often sounds like I'm blaming her for allowing these people to teach this to me. I suppose in some ways I did, but now that I understand myself, I realize that it's just the way my particular mind reacted to that sort of a thing. I tend to be a bit obsessive, and if I wasn't, it probably wouldn't have been much of a problem. Instead, I found myself saying the name of God many times during the night, and I continued to believe in this until my early twenties.

The most jarring experience was when I was about 19 or 20 and I was taking a nap on the couch. I felt a presence walk into the room, and I couldn't move as I felt somebody push my face down into the cushions and growl into my ear that I had better not move. I struggled to get up, and I tried to say God's name, but I was completely frozen. When I finally was able to get up, the experience disturbed me so badly that I had trouble sleeping for a few days in fear that it would happen again.

Cut to years later and I was really getting into the subject of skepticism. Basically, I had always found things like astrology to be bull, and that was what got me started. After that, I started to read about UFO abductions. The thing is with those stories is that the people who experience them talk about it as though it was a very real experience. However, I learned about something called sleep paralysis. It's a condition where you're stuck between being awake and asleep, and your body gets frozen. It also is usually accompanied by very vivid hallucinations and a sense of being in danger. This, of course, is a much more logical alternative than believing that somehow a space ship lands in a suburb and probes a person without anybody noticing.

And guess what else? It's also a better explanation as to what I experienced than some demon came in and pushed my head in a pillow. I suppose that this was all the beginning of the end of belief for me. Once I was armed with a more logical explanation, I stopped being afraid, even when I had another bout of it. That time, I was sleeping in my bed and I was not only being pushed down, but I could see a dark shape hovering next to my bed. I was freaked out for a moment, but then my brain quickly sent myself the message "sleep paralysis". I then remember punching at that specter before me, and it went away. (It's unlikely that I actually was able to move my arm, but the point is still the same - I defeated it.) Honestly, it's never happened since then, and that's been more than a decade ago now. The thing is, rational thinking made me more secure in the dark than believing that God was on my side EVER did. Now when I have some sort of bad feeling, I quickly get over it by telling myself it's all in my head rather than worry that there's some sort of a presence in the room. Of course, this involves admitting that my brain's not perfect and it's subject to misinterpreting what's going on. I'm not sure that everybody's willing to do that.

So, any believer who's reading this might be feeling pretty smug. "Ah ha! That's it! If only he could understand the love of Jesus and know that it's not about fear!" Well, like I said, that was over ten years ago, but I've only admitted to being an atheist for a bit less than ten years now. To me, the belief in demons and the belief in Jesus were separate things. I still believed in God, and I leaned toward the Christian interpretation of what God is.

What were my experiences with Jesus then? Honestly, they were pretty good. I remember reading the stories about him in My Book of Bible Stories when I was little. I remember loving the thought that he stood by me while I was in the hospital and whenever I was sick. Jesus was a cool guy. Shoot, I still think he's pretty cool, only I think he is in the same way that I think that Superman is a cool guy.

What about my experiences with the faithful? I'll be honest - I never went to church regularly. When I did, I always felt really uncomfortable. But here's the thing - the experiences that I had weren't with some dogmatic, hate-spewing congregations. Most of those experiences were with Justin McRoberts, whom I hung out with a lot in high school and my early college years. People were cool at his church, and he was never judgmental towards me or made me feel like I was going to hell if I didn't believe what he did. Shoot, if you're looking at my Blogspot version of this page, you'll find that I link his blog to mine! Yeah, so I don't agree with his faith, but I obviously don't find anything particularly offensive about it. The man was a friend of mine - and still is, and he's about as positive an example of the Christian faith as you can get.

I suppose that I also had a problem when I joined a Bible study group. I genuinely liked it the first few times that I went, and I only got fed up with it when it became more about getting more people to join than studying The Bible. So, I guess there's that.

As to why I felt uncomfortable while in a church as decent as Justin's? (I believe it's called The Hope Center.) I guess something in my brain was telling me that something just wasn't sitting right. Maybe it was all those cheesy songs. I don't know, but it just wasn't for me.

So there's the truth as best as I can recall it. My reasons for abandoning faith are varied, and if you have to tie it with the whole demon thing, I guess it started when I learned the power of a logical, rational explanation. Ultimately, when I examined my own beliefs, I determined that it was more important to accept what IS real rather than what I wanted to be real. From what I could tell, and what I can still tell, is that the existence of God just doesn't pass the logic test. People keep trying to make a logical argument, but every one that I've heard falls apart.

I'm still eager to hear a good logical argument, but until then, I can't pretend to believe something that I don't.


Ingrid said...

Lance, you should conduct a survey among your friends what they were afraid of when they were children. I am sure that almost anyone had some fear of something or someone.
Since I have those sleep paralysis attacks also, I know how horrible they are. Mine have become less frequent.
I think that peoples strengths are also their weaknesses, and your strong sense of imagination, which created your fears also helps you to be as creative in your writing and story telling.
As far as I know, every great writer had his "demons" and they must have started at some point. In your case, you can blame it on the Witnesses, the church, but you would have had them anyway. Of course I know some dullards who were not afraid of anything when they were children, but they are also just that, boring.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I think you're right, actually. At least about the part of how I would have been scared anyway. That could be the subject of its own blog post. Still, at least I wouldn't have been scared of something that doesn't exist - which is the thing that rankles me a bit when I think about it now.

April D Findley said...

Wow, this was an intense post. It's actually made all the more intense by the fact that my husband had an extremely similar experience just last month.

He was woken in the middle of the night by someone touching his leg. Of course he assummed at first it was me and wondered why I was standing by the bed touching him in the middle of the night. Sensing I was still in bed laying next to him, he opened his eyes to see the a black silouette of a man or figure. It scared the crap out of him and he yelled "WHOA!" which woke me up.

When he told his mom about it the next day, she told him she had the same experience when she was pregnant with him. Very trippy and just a little creepy, too. I don't have any concrete answers about this, Lance. You may be right about the sleep paralysis.

However, I do believe in demons and while I don't fear them, I take action against them every day. And you can guarantee I prayed the blood of Christ all over our bedroom, rebuked any demons that were trying to attack my husband and cast them out in Jesus' Name.

I certainly don't want to come off as argumentative or "splitting hairs" but there is a differnce between praying against demons in GOD's name and praying against them in JESUS' name. I will elaborate on this if any one cares to know, although, I'm not expecting anyone to be jumping up and down for this info. ;-)

Lance, I'm certain I can't offer up an argument today that you haven't already heard because I just don't think I've been walking with Christ long enough. Maybe someday the Holy Spirit can speak to you through me and make that convincing arguement. I dunno. But I do enjoy hearing your thoughts and experiences and I love how they make me think beyond the comfort of my own faith.

With that in mind, Jesus told me they have a pretty sick micro- brewery up there in Heaven. He says he could use a good brewmaster and that you should reconsider your views.



Lance Christian Johnson said...


My mom has it too (as she mentioned in her comment on this thread!) Honestly, for me, going back to believing in demons feels kind of like going back to believing in the Boogey Man. It just feels like a HUGE step backward. Again, I could be wrong, but it seems as though if I open myself to the possibility of demons, then I might as well also believe in leprechauns, hobgoblins, and elves while I'm at it. The evidence for one is about as good as the evidence for the rest.

If it were to happen to me again, I'd just shake it off and not give it another thought. Honestly, and I say this because I know that you have a kid, you need to be careful with the praying and rebuking of demons. I'm not trying to tell you what to believe, but that sort of thing might just fill him with more anxiety than comfort - depending on his personality type. After all, that's precisely what happened to me. As I said, simply not believing in those things gives me a heck of a lot more comfort than a rebuke ever did. There are too many real things to be afraid of.

As for "walking with Christ", maybe you're right. But I know plenty of people who have done the whole thing - and I've read books about others who have as well. And still, they find a way to move beyond it. Honestly, I think it's harder for the theist to understand. After all, I know what it's like on both sides of this fence (at least as far as basic belief goes - I'm not presuming to have an insight on all your experiences).

As for breweries in the afterlife, Pastafarians have a Beer Volcano, so you haven't quite topped that one just yet. ; )

Anyway, this has gotten me thinking about a post that I've meaning to get around to dealing with what it would mean for me to believe again. I'll try and get to it this weekend.

April D Findley said...

HAHAHA, Beer-Volcano. Sounds awesome! I myself would be partial to a Martini Lake, dirty, with extra olives.

Lance, I agree, there are certain spiritual topics that are more mature than others and it's my responsibility as a parent to protect my children from ANY kind of information that they aren't equiped to handle. When I talk with my children about demonic things, I don't use "demons" as a scare tactic to manipulate them into "godly" behavior. I know some people do that sort of thing in the name of being "good Christians". That's baloney. Posters and pinatas aren't evil.

I could go on and on, but I think that would be beating a dead horse. I am looking forward to your next post, have an awesome weekend!